What is it about the coronavirus genome that makes it so dangerous?

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Novel Coronavirus SARS-CoV-2 Colorized scanning electron micrograph of an apoptotic cell (green) heavily infected with SARS-COV-2 virus particles (purple). Credit: NIAID
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In January, scientists deciphered a piece of very bad news: the genome of SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19. The sample came from a 41-year-old man who worked at the seafood market in Wuhan where the first cluster of cases appeared.

The full coronavirus genome and the proteins it encodes are shown below.

A Chain of Proteins · ORF1ab

The first viral protein created inside the infected cell is actually a chain of 16 proteins joined together. Two of these proteins act like scissors, snipping the links between the different proteins and freeing them to do their jobs.

Spike Protein · S

The spike protein is one of four structural proteins — S, E, M and N — that form the outer layer of the coronavirus and protect the RNA inside. Structural proteins also help assemble and release new copies of the virus.

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The S proteins form prominent spikes on the surface of the virus by arranging themselves in groups of three. These crownlike spikes give coronaviruses their name.

End of the Line

The coronavirus genome ends with a snippet of RNA that stops the cell’s protein-making machinery. It then trails away as a repeating sequence of aaaaaaaaaaaaa.

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